Yerushalayim’s Ancient Shaar Shechem Is at the Heart of a Modern Wave of Violence

YERUSHALAYIM (The Washington Post) —
An Israeli police officer aim his weapon as he guards in Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old City on February 15, 2016. Photo by (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An Israeli police officer aim his weapon as he guards in Shar Shechem in Jerusalem Old City on February 15, 2016. Photo by (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

For centuries, Shaar Shechem has stood as the portal to the Old City of Yerushalayim, opening onto a packed bazaar of souvenir shops, tea houses and falafel joints – and the holiest places for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

On Tuesday, a watchful Israeli sniper was perched in one of the gate’s stone turrets, swiveling his scoped rifle, as Israeli border police milled about the entrance, warily eyeing the passersby, a mix of Palestinians doing some shopping for their moms, and elderly Jewish rabbis with long gray side curls who were escorted through the gate by private security guards in flak jackets.

The tourists and pilgrims still come, but for locals, Shaar Shechem is now a hot zone to be avoided, with squads of Israeli soldiers waiting in nearby buses and Palestinian teens frequently stopped, searched and sometimes led away.

For the past five months, a wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis has marked a deadly escalation in the two sides’ long-running conflict. According to a count by The Washington Post, more than 27 Israelis have been killed in knife, gun and vehicular attacks; more than 160 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli forces, 110 while carrying out attacks and 50 during clashes.

Shaar Shechem has served as the backdrop – and the beacon – for at least 14 of those attacks.

The latest occurred Sunday night when two Palestinian 20-year-olds wielding automatic weapons were shot dead in a brief gun battle at the gate, which sits in the heart of eastern Yerushalayim, just a block from bus stations and tram stops and close to Palestinian high schools. One was a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces, and the targets were Israeli police, who were uninjured. On Monday, police arrested a teenage Palestinian girl wielding knives. Then on Tuesday, they detained a Palestinian man with a knife up his sleeve.

The gate seen today was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1537 on top of an earlier entry into the walled city that the Romans erected in the emperor Hadrian’s time. The Jews call it Shaar Schechem, or Nablus Gate. Arabs call it Bab al-Amud, Gate of the Column, for the obelisk left by the Romans.

Its English name reflects the fact that it faces north, toward Damascus. It may seem hard to believe amid today’s wars and divisions, but it was once possible to hop into a taxi in Jerusalem and get driven to the Syrian capital.

“It is the most beautiful gate of all,” said Ahmed Dandes, 48, who owns a small shop selling gentlemen’s trousers inside the gate. “It is the path of three religions,” a reference to the Jews’ Western Wall, Christians’ Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Muslims’ al-Aqsa Mosque.

Rabbi Menachem Ben Yaakov, who works at the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, in the Muslim quarter of the Old City not far from the Shaar Shechem, passes through daily. Over the past few months, he has been accompanied by private guards hired to protect the Rabbis and students at the yeshivah.

He said he thought the violence would eventually dissipate and that with the large contingent of police and soldiers, the area felt perfectly safe to him.

“I don’t feel threatened,” he said. “Jews should not be scared of going any place in Jerusalem. They have the security of the Great One – and Israeli security.”

The Palestinians at the gate eye the Jews, and the Jews eye the Palestinians, who say they are careful not to make any sudden moves. These days, Palestinian youths are ordered not to congregate on the stone steps leading to the gate.

“Every day, we come here after school. It refreshes our souls,” said Mutasem Afaneh, 15, from the eastern Yerushalayim neighborhood of Ras al-Amud.

Asked why Palestinians chose the Damascus Gate as a site for attacks, the teen said, “Because this where the police harass and humiliate the girls and the boys.”

That is reason to grab a knife?

“For some,” Afaneh said.

The first incident in the immediate area happened on Oct. 4, when Palestinian teen Fadi Alloun was accused by nearby Israelis of attempting to attack them. The crowd chased Alloun into the central square, where he was shot by Israeli police officers who had responded to a call. Palestinians say Alloun was lynched. Israeli police said he had a knife. Since then, at least 11 Palestinians have been killed at the gate or at the nearby tram stop.

As the violence continues, Shaar Shechem has become a popular backdrop for journalists to film a visual seam in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the gate is “the most tense spot in the city.”

The high level of security extended even to journalists. On Tuesday, while conducting interviews at the Damascus Gate, Washington Post bureau chief William Booth and correspondent SufianTaha were briefly detained by police on suspicion of causing incitement. The police later issued an apology, saying the suspicions were “without foundation.”

Shai Glick, nephew of the Jewish activist Yehuda Glick, who was shot and wounded last year after advocating that Jews be allowed to pray at a contested religious site in the Old City, blamed the recent wave of violence on one incident, a stabbing that took place near here on Oct. 2.

“The Muslims and Jews that come to this place are against the violence, and until four months ago it was all calm here, the market was full and the people were doing real business,” he said. “Then four months ago, a Palestinian teenager, not even from here, came and stabbed two people, killing them. After that, business has gone down by 90 percent and everyone is suffering.”

Anna Mazur and Yvgeny Fesenko, tourists from Kiev, Ukraine, said they arrived in Jerusalem two days ago and were planning 10 more days to tour the country.

“The situation here does not bother us at all. We have a similar situation in Ukraine,” Mazur said. “We don’t have Jews or Palestinians, but we have people fighting each other.”

William Ek-Uvelius, an activist from Sweden, said, “When I was here in March there was no sniper up there.”

Myong Su, a religious tourist from South Korea, said she was not afraid to come to the Damascus Gate.

“There is nothing to be scared of here,” she said. “It is all in G-d’s hands. It is all written down when we will die.”

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